Joshua Wen-Kwei Liao (1905 – 1952): A Founding Theorist of Taiwanese Independence

Written by Kuan-Wei Wu 吳冠緯

Image Credit: Public Domain

Joshua Wen-Kwei Liao (廖文奎, 14. November 1905 – 1952) is a founding theorist of post-war Taiwan independence.  We should see his pre-eminence as multifaceted, not merely because of his political engagement but because of his prolific intellectual achievement. He was a politician and activist who began the post-war overseas Taiwanese independence movement and shed light on its theoretical foundation. He was also an intellectual historian and political psychologist who applied and combined the philosophies of the Chicago pragmatist school, continental Lebensphilosophie, and Eastern Neo-Confucianism, along with Sun Yat-sen’s political doctrines, to contemporary East Asian intellectual discussions. He was one of the few Taiwanese who had proximity to Chinese Nationalist elites but chose to become an early advocate of Taiwanese independence Joshua’s complex character thus made him a figure of the post-war Taiwanese political history and a topic of East-Asian intellectual history that combined different traits of political and social thinking.

It is noteworthy that he was the first Taiwanese Doctor of Philosophy in the United States, having attained both his Master’s and Doctor’s degrees from the University of Chicago. He studied under the guidance of the noteworthy Chicago pragmatists George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), Edwin Arthur Burtt (1892-1989), and James Hayden Tufts (1862-1942). His monograph, The Individual and the Community (1933), was selected by the British publisher Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co to be included in the International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method. This series also included the works of most significant contemporary thinkers from the west and the east, e.g., Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Carl Jung (1875-1961), Alfred Adler (1870-1937), Bronisław Malinowski (1884-1942), Liang Qichao (梁啟超, 1873-1929) and Hsiao Kung-chuan (蕭公權, 1897-1981). His English translation of Han Fei Zu has been, until now, the most canonical version in Sinology. 

In 1950, he published Formosa Speaks to call for Taiwanese independence in the international community and was thus recognised for his theoretical and historical formulation of Taiwanese sovereignty. Thanks to the research project “Taiwanese Philosophy” led by Dr Hung Tzu-wei (洪子偉), Academia Sinica, numerous Taiwanese philosophers’ intellectual works have been unearthed and carefully studied and republished. The lost works of Joshua Wen-Kwei Liao were also found in the basements of antique libraries. His Imperialism vs Nationalism in Formosa(1947), Chinese Philosophy and Politics (1948), Japanese Philosophy and Politics (1949), and other essays scattered across various periodicals were unearthed through the endeavours of researchers. And hence, the study of Joshua Wen-Kwei Liao becomes more comprehensive with these newly found works.

Joshua was born in a Presbyterian family in central Taiwan. His parents were both borough ministers and landlords. His seven siblings were all highly educated, and three of them had Doctor’s degrees. In 1919, Joshua left Taiwan to start studying abroad. He studied at Doshisha High School (同志社中学; Dōshisha Chūgaku) in Kyoto, and later at the University of Nanjing (金陵大學). In 1929, he began his studies at the University of Chicago and got his Master’s and Doctor’s degrees in three years. He met a Swedish-American Greta W. Westberg and later married her in 1931, the year he graduated in Chicago. After an excursion to Europe, he started his academic career in China. He held a professorship in the Central School of Governance (中央政治學校), the Republic of China Military Academy (中華民國陸軍軍官學校), and his Alma Mater, the University of Nanjing. In the meantime, he was also a prolific writer with numerous works: The Individual and the Community (1933), Studies on Lebensphilosophie (人生哲學之研究, 1936) and Comparison of Civic Training (比較公民訓練, 1936), and translations of A Discourse on Political Psychology (政治心理論, 1937) and Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu: A Classic of Chinese Political Science (vol. I, 1937; vol. II, 1959). 

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Joshua became a thorn in the side of Chinese and Japanese spies for his multicultural and multilingual background. He once suffered in a Shanghai prison under the surveillance of the Chinese military garrison. In the post-war period, he became more engaged with Taiwanese politics. He issued Quo Vadis Formosa (1946) and Imperialism vs Nationalism in Formosa (1947) to narrate Taiwanese people’s suffering status in history. With his brother Thomas Wen-yi Liao (廖文毅, 1910-1986) and other Taiwanese intellectuals, he co-founded a magazine Avant-Garde (前鋒) and a political organisation called ‘the Formosan League for Re-emancipation’ (台灣再解放聯盟). After the outbreak of the February 28 Incident and the following purge, he was exiled to Hong Kong. In 1950, he issued Formosa Speaks (1950) to formulate a concept of the Taiwanese people’s suffering destiny and called for self-determination and recognition by the international community. During his exile to Hong Kong, he issued dozens of articles in various magazines, not merely formulating his theoretical foundation of Taiwanese independence but also elaborating his understanding of Chinese and Japanese intellectual histories. In the year 1952, Joshua died due to an unknown cause. His brother Thomas later fled to Tokyo and kept the overseas Taiwanese independence movement going.

Joshua’s reflection of statehood or political thought entailed several trends of thought. Foremost, he applied pragmatist social psychology to reading intellectual histories of the west and the east. He postulated that intellectuals’ prestigious status was due to society and its guidance, which determined them. This postulation did not merely portray a pragmatist understanding that any individual was a product of the society we live in but also entailed an idealist conception that an intellectual had a higher motivation—a conscience—to become a social guide. The core concept of public intellectuals was thus carefully considered in his work. 

Following the political doctrines of Sun Yat-sen (孫中山, 1866-1925), Joshua held a nationalist and idealist view that the Chinese nation should be reinvigorated with ideological remedies (思想救國論). And therefore, public intellectuals played a pivotal role in state affairs. Thus, by adopting the methodology of continental Lebensphilosophie, psychological behaviourism, and most of all, Neo-Confucian ethics, Joshua reformulated an ideological blueprint to show how the people share a public spirit on their deeds: ‘the aim of life should be to render service to society, and to eliminate all selfish thoughts’ (人生以服務為目的 不以奪取為目的). The latter being a canonical maxim from Sun Yat-sen’s political doctrines.

During the 1930s, he was a genuine follower of Sun Yat-sen’s nationalistic and idealistic thinking, along with some of his conservative Neo-Confucian traits. His reflection on statehood reflected Chinese liberalist modernisation tendencies based on Sun Yat-sen’s concept of state-building. It could be noted that Joshua’s national identification was Chinese patriotism at that time. His manifestation of Taiwanese self-determination came during the post-war retrocession of the Chinese Nationalist regime. Whether through his experience of personal suffering or his observation of corruption and ill governance, he became an advocate of Taiwanese independence rather than a patriot of Chinese nationalism. Despite such a drastic change concerning national identity, Joshua’s thoughts about an ideal statehood were still concrete and consistent. It could be ascribed that Joshua became a theoretical founder of Taiwanese independence, borrowing his words in The Individual and the Community (1931), was taken place ‘by chance’. Because of the discontent and dissatisfaction with the authoritarian, corrupt, and repressive governance of the Chinese Nationalist regime, he realised his ideal of liberalist statehood had failed. An alternative form of state-building was required. He, therefore, turned to further political engagement and intellectual activities surrounding Taiwan independence.

Despite his prolific intellectual work and political discourse, his intellectual heritage has been long neglected. In the international community of Sinology, he was recognised for the canonical translation of Han Fei Tzu, which UNESCO sponsored. In the 1990s, due to democratisation and liberalisation, there was more space for studying Taiwanese intellectuals. Thus, in 1999, the intellectual historian and political theorist Wu Rwei-ren (吳叡人) published an essay on Joshua’s biographical and intellectual history, according to his accidental finding in the University of Chicago libraries.

Later in 2000, the eminent historian Chang Yan-hsien (張炎憲, 1947-2014) and his colleagues published an oral history study of the overseas Taiwanese independence movement. There were some other studies about Joshua and his political engagement. Thanks to Academia Sinica’s “Taiwanese Philosophy” project, Joshua and other Taiwanese thinkers have eventually been unearthed and studied comprehensively. In spring 2021, the Selected Writings of Joshua Wen-Kwei Liao (廖文奎文獻選輯) was published by the National Taiwan University Press.

Like his East-Asian contemporary intellectuals, Joshua was a product of both Western and Eastern traditions during those divided times. His reflection on statehood enfolds different trends of twentieth-century thought. This makes him a complex but intriguing thinker. When previous studies emphasise his political and nationalistic engagement, it should be noted that his way of thinking and philosophical methodology is also worthwhile to research. On the one hand, his reflection of statehood portrayed the complex path toward modernisation in twentieth-century East Asia. On the other, his theoretical formulation of nationalism and self-determination was based on an ideal version that any intellectual should play a pivotal role in sustaining state-building.

Kuan-Wei Wu (吳冠緯) is a PhD Student of Faculty of East-Asian Studies, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany. He is also a research assistant at the Taiwan Research Unit of Ruhr-Universität Bochum. He is a reader of Taiwanese intellectual history as well as East-Asian and Continental philosophy and history and also an amateur of novels, essays and poetry.

This article was published as part of EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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